This week brings with it the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of the annual observation of Ramadan. For Ishaq Ali, senior social impact manager for cannabis marketplace Eaze, the occasion presented an opportunity to highlight an area in which he possesses a certain level of expertise: cannabis stigmas in Muslim communities.
In a blog post set to be published to Eaze’s website, Ali — a first-generation Muslim as well as a Fresno native — draws some compelling parallels between the misinformation at the heart of both the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, while suggesting those who share his faith may wish to reexamine their stance on cannabis.
Ali approaches what is potentially a rather controversial topic by emphasizing education and social justice.
Speaking with SF Weekly, Ali explained the rationale behind his post, which posits that cannabis is not forbidden by the Qur’an. In his essay, Ali argues that his fellow adherents should think of cannabis as a medicine, which would mean it an acceptable substance for practicing Muslims to consume (should they so desire).
“In Islam,” Ali explained, “they very specifically name certain things that are forbidden, like pork and alcohol. By contrast, people have considered cannabis to be a medicine for thousands of years. Interestingly enough, there is also no explicit prohibition of cannabis in the Qur’an. Because of that, I believe it opens up the interpretation to the individual who is reading the text and how they interact with the plant.”
Using alcohol as an example, Ali detailed the practical thinking that likely led to the inclusion of that intoxicant being forbidden.
“Alcohol was an issue at the time,” he says, “so it made sense for them to prohibit it.”
Practically speaking, the effects of alcohol intoxication — along with the acute and chronic medical risks it poses — were seen as a detriment to society. By prohibiting the consumption of alcohol in the Qur’an, it was thus possible to curtail (at least to some degree) such undesired behavior.
“By contrast,” Ali continued, “people in Muslim regions from South Asia to North Africa have been consuming cannabis in some form for 3,000 years. Islam has been around for 1,400 years, and, in many cases, people view it as a reaction to the morality of that time, but you can’t just make blanket statements about everything being immoral. You have to be able to figure out which pieces are actual issues.”
Another focus of Ali’s piece looks at the ways in which the War on Drugs and the War on Terror overlap and feed one another.
Ali was six-years-old on September 11, 2001. Today, he says his entire living memory is set in a “post-9/11” world. Growing up in Central California as the son of an Indian father (originally from Pakistan) and a mother from Columbia, Ali’s own perception of the War on Drugs was shaped in part by the cultural fears his parents each brought with them from their home countries.
“When you grow up in a first-generation household,” he explains, “your parents have a lot of different stresses about what this new world will be like. My mom came from Colombia, where it was this cocaine war and death on the streets every other day and my dad came from a culture that was very conservative and anti-intoxicant.”
Simultaneously, Ali and his family were also among the countless Muslims who suffered discrimination in the wake of 9/11. As a result, he found himself out at protests by the age of 8. By the time Ali arrived at college, he was “all-in” on public policy.
By 2015, he was preparing a thesis focused on the War on Terror. As part of his research, Ali began to explore the deep ties between Afghanistan’s opium trade, the U.S. military’s ongoing presence in the country, and the shifting stances American forces have taken on the region’s sprawling poppy fields — at times attempting stop the flow of opiates from the Central Asian country, at other times turning a blind eye to it.
“Doing that research showed me that there really is a direct connection between the War on Terror and the drug trade,” Ali said.
But far from deciding a quest to legalize opium was the move, Ali instead worked with the UC Berkeley School of Public Policy on a 2016 study which looked at rates of cannabis arrests in different regions of California. From there, he pitched his skills and experience to Eaze, where he’s been carving out a dedicated niche ever since.
Over the past few years, Ali’s work has primarily focused on Eaze Momentum: a 12-week accelerator program for cannabis equity operators that also comes with a $50,000, no-strings-attached grant.
“We don’t take any equity in their businesses,” Ali explained, “and participants get a whole suite of information designed to build out their business acumen.”
For Ali, his role and platform with Eaze was also the catalyst to share his thoughts on cannabis as a first-generation Muslim American with a deep understanding of all sides of the issue.
“When talking about Muslims and cannabis, which is definitely a sensitive topic, the main thing that I want to get out there, honestly, is that it really comes down to education,” Ali said.
“That’s what I’m trying to do,” he continued, “and particularly with this blog post I’ve written. I want to educate the community about something where they’ve previously been told otherwise and I’m thinking about this from a very positive stance of just getting this information out there because the more people who know, the better.”
Zack Ruskin covers cannabis for SF Weekly. Twitter @zackruskin